When I was in graduate school, they taught us how to do academic research. Up until this point, using secondary sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica and popular magazine articles--so long as cited when used--were fair game for writing research. We were taught that primary sources were more important. Further, secondary sources can be used, but these should be double checked for accuracy and reliability of authorship. I'm not sure why these were such breakthroughs for me, but they were.
These points were brought home recently while learning about the Supreme Court opinion concerning the Affordable Care Act. Initially, the media reported its prediction of how the case would hash out given the tone of the arguments before the Court. The consensus was that the ACA wouldn't pass because of the way the questioning went. A few days ago I listened to the audio of the hearings for myself. It was very clear from the arguments that there was no clear direction the Court was headed. It could have went either way. A first year law student could have told you that, but apparently, the legal scholars interviewed by the media had a different opinion.
Next, we have the ACA decision itself. Coverage by the media was horrendous. At first, CNN and Fox News literally reported that the ACA was overturned. They weren't even in the ballpark. Then, they amended their coverage, but this new "reporting" was hardly better. Just as President Obama said that we must focus not on the political horse race concerning this decision and be mindful of what this means for the uncovered 30 million Americans who will now have access to health care, the media immediately reported the decision, focusing only on the political implications of the decision. Whether or not the decision was a good one for the vast majority of Americans, what it would mean for future federal law, Federalism, and other issues weren't reported. Apparently, these substantial, non superficial matters don't deserve reporting. The most startling difference was the comparison between National Public Radio and Fox News. NPR is supposed to be unbiased, highbrow reporting. After reviewing both pieces, the only difference between the two was that NPR didn't use it as an opportunity to bash Obama. Neither one reported anything substantial.
In fact, to get an idea of what the Supreme Court decision actually meant, I had to read the decision myself. Having gone to law school and taken Constitutional law, I have some background in these things and could do it. But what about your average citizen, one who hasn't gone to law school? The media and its failure to properly report the news is a real detriment to our democracy. In fact, its failure to serve its institutional role as an informer is actually helping to undermine real democracy. A citizenry left in the dark cannot meaningfully participate in the government. That is why our country is so fucked up now.
Having read the decision, and having given the matter a few days, you would think the news coverage of the events would have improved. Maybe some real analysis would be reported. While things have improved somewhat, most of the coverage, even by major periodicals like the New York Times, was still sparse given the real "meat" of the decision. Again, the focus remains whether or not this is good for Obama and what Romney has to say about it. Perhaps this is the point--by concentrating on the horse race between the two candidates, we can hide the real issues. We don't get to ask the real questions about what the Commerce Clause and the Spending Power are, or what the implications of this decision will mean for real people.
This is exactly the way the system likes it.
Supreme Court opinion re: Affordable Care Act
Supreme Court oral arguments re: Affordable Care Act